Days after we rang in the New Year, I finished a year spent reading all of the Fantastic Four comics, from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s earth-shattering first issue in 1961, which explained how four family members and friends were transformed by cosmic rays into super-powered adventurers, through the latest issues in 2015 by James Robinson and Leonard Kirk, in which those same four people are facing yet another trial that threatens their very existence. My reading included most of the related mini-series and secondary series, plus crossovers and event books (even though I have yet to read the entire run of Marvel Two-in-One, the long-running team-up book starring the idol o’ millions, the ever-lovin’ Thing).
As soon as I finished the epic run by writer Jonathan Hickman and various artists—the last run that I had not read in its entirety when it came out, much to my detriment—my first thought was, like a kid on a roller coaster, “I want to do it again!” I find myself with a profound love for these characters, even though I didn’t read them as a kid, coming to them only as an adult (and fairly recently at that). What is it about Reed Richards, the self-proclaimed Mr. Fantastic, whose body became as flexible as his scientific genius, while in the area of romance he remained as stiff as a board? Or Sue Storm Richards, the Invisible Woman (and Reed’s long-suffering partner), who transformed over the years from the perpetual hostage into the powerhouse of the team? What draws me to Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, who is the group’s Peter Pan while at the same time possessing awesome destructive power that he constantly struggles to keep under control? Or Ben Grimm, the Thing, whose focus on his rocky exterior blinds him to his inherent goodness and virtue, which his beloved (and literally blind) Alicia Masters can perceive all too well?
Something about them seems as primal to me as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America do. I think it’s clear that those heroes are archetypes, each in his or her own way, and if they didn’t exist someone would have to invent them. Because they already existed, however, the new Marvel Universe that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Associates created in the early 1960s didn’t need them. Instead, they would develop a new type of hero. These newer heroes were flawed people who struggled with their shortcomings, faced a world that did not always welcome them, and strove to do the right thing nonetheless, even when the right thing to do was not always clear and did not always turn out as planned. These were not godlike heroes with unimaginable power, unassailable virtue, or superhuman determination, but imperfect people burdened with great power who tried to fulfill the great responsibility that comes with it, and made plenty of mistakes along the way.
To me, the core principle of Marvel Comics is consistency of characterization, and I think the FF is perhaps the best example of it. The defining characteristics of the Marvel heroes were thoroughly laid out by Lee, Kirby, Ditko, and the rest of the Original Architects™ in the early 1960s. For the most part, subsequent creators have preserved these traits while refining them—and if they did change them, they did so naturally as part of the story, not arbitrarily through jarring shifts in motivation and behavior. For example, over the years Sue has emerged as the strongest member of the Fantastic Four, both emotionally and physically, but it was done gradually and organically within the long-form story of the group. (As I’ve written elsewhere, that’s what made DC Comics’ New 52 relaunch so devastating to longtime fans, and why stories like Marvel’s One More Day and Axis poses similar problems.)
This continuity of characterization is made all the impressive by the fact that the Fantastic Four have been portrayed by a number of legendary writers and artists over the last 50-plus years, each with their own individualized approaches to the characters, the team, and their mission. Nonetheless, they have all adhered to the blueprint laid out by Lee and Kirby in their early work on the book. I find it amazing that, to this day, the personalities of the Four, their catchphrases, and their key supporting cast and surroundings, were all laid out in the first ten or so issues, and have remained integral parts of the concept ever since. Some fans (and some creators, perhaps) may find it tiresome when, for the umpteenth time, Ben announces “it’s clobberin’ time,” Johnny flies off the handle, and Reed ignores Sue for his beloved mistress Science. But these are the foundations of the concept of the FF, as important as their powers, costumes, or gadgets. They provide essential continuity in the most basic sense, an assurance that yes, these are the same Fantastic Four you read in the last issue or fifty years ago. To me, that is an enormously satisfying and comforting aspect of the comics reading experience, far more important than continuity in the sense of the consistency of minutiae. (“In Wolverine #156, the knuckles on the fingers of his left hand were shown to be scraped for the entire issue while his right arm grew back completely between pages 8 and 9. Did his healing factor only work on his right side because of the effect of being hit by the High Evolutionary’s mega-zowie-ray in Uncanny X-Men #214 the previous month?”)
Mind you, this is a bit thicker definition than most heroes get, even within the Marvel Universe. How many other superheroes have catchphrases as regularly used and well known as Ben Grimm’s? But conventions like this, despite how tired of them some fans may become, lay a clear definition for the characters, a firm basis from which endless stories can be told, across a variety of media, while retaining the familiarity of old friends. It is a restriction only in the sense that the structure of a sonnet is a restriction: these rules define the form which grounds the story and makes it a Fantastic Four story. If someone doesn’t want to tell stories with Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben as Stan and Jack defined them, then he or she should use other characters (or invent your own). It’s a testament to the stewards of the Fantastic Four over the years that, while they may have had the chance to radically alter the premise of the team, they remained faithful to the original vision of Lee and Kirby, recognizing the infinite potential of a breathtakingly inventive and lovingly crafted concept.
Speaking of potential, for all the well-defined character traits, catchphrases, and mannerisms—or because of them—the Fantastic Four can support an incredible range of storytelling possibilities. It is commonplace to point out that their nature as explorers, rather than crimefighters, allows them to venture to distant planets, visit strange dimensions, and travel through time, instead of having to patrol Manhattan each night. But this open-ended nature of their lives also allows stories that work on a very down-to-earth level, about four people dealing with circumstances both extraordinary and familiar. For every FF story we get in which they have to face down Galactus to save a planet, fight Annihilus in the Negative Zone, or work with the Inhumans or Uatu (RIP) on the moon, we get a story of Ben’s inability to commit to his true love Alicia, Reed and Sue’s doubt about their abilities as parents, and Johnny’s realization of the potential devastation his power can cause, not only in physical terms but also as a role model (as shown in the classic Fantastic Four #285, in which a fan lights himself on fire and dies in an attempt to emulate his hero). As with all of the classic Marvel characters, it is the combination of the human and the fantastic that brings the Four to life.
Also, I feel that the Fantastic Four is best regarded, not as separate characters, but rather as one character made of four integral parts. Of course, they have had a number of substitute members, including Medusa and Crystal of the Inhumans, Luke Cage, She-Hulk, Ant-Man, and most recently Spider-Man. (The entire team has even been replaced, such as in Walter Simonson and Matt Fraction’s runs.) But inevitably, these pinch hitters only reinforce the unique chemistry between the original four. Furthermore, none but Ben Grimm has ever sustained a long-running solo series, and even his longest was the aforementioned team-up book in which he could bounce off of other heroes. A Mr. Fantastic solo comic would probably consist of 22 pages of Reed looking through a microscope while, in the background, the other three fought an epic battle against Diablo. (Just kidding—no one could write an epic battle with Diablo.) Their personalities are so lopsided—especially Reed and Ben—that they need at least one of the other members to complete them. Each pair of members has a unique relationship that makes the web of interrelationships between all four even richer and provides an emotional background to the standard fights and struggles of superhero comics.
Finally, the FF has the best villain, hands down: Doctor Doom. I’m not one to like villains, but Doctor Doom is no mere villain. He’s a fascinating combination of arrogance and integrity, megalomania and insecurity, unable to decide whether it is more important to conquer the world or humiliate Reed Richards, precisely the weakness that all too often brings him down. He’s the perfect arch-nemesis and opposite number to Reed, providing a mirror in which Richards can see the darker aspects of his own brilliance and determination to make the world a better place. Doom is Lex Luthor with a richer backstory, the Joker with firmer purpose, and a more striking figure than either. Not many villains can pull off his astounding pomposity, but not many villains have his total conviction. For these reasons and more, Doctor Doom is as integral to the concept of the Fantastic Four as the four members themselves are.
There is simply so much to love in the Fantastic Four mythos. I could go on, but Carol’s giving me the five-minute signal… [Wrap it up, White – Ed.]
More than anything, I appreciate that the book never takes itself too seriously. Even in dire times, when members die or relationships end, the book has never turned “grim and gritty,” while at the same time it’s had a persistent, underlying theme of tragedy and loss from which heroes nonetheless emerge. The writers, artists, and editors have never seemed ashamed of the delightfully goofy setting established by Lee and Kirby, and have always found room in the all-stakes action and drama to inject humor and joy into the stories.
And comics can always use more humor and joy, right? ‘Nuff said.
When he’s not teaching philosophy at a large metropolitan university, Mark D. White writes about ethics and superheroes, though not always at the same time. He blogs at The Comics Professor, Economics and Ethics, and Psychology Today; edits books such as Batman and Philosophy and Superman and Philosophy; and writes books such as The Virtues of Captain America.